Coming of Age in America Return to Fairhaven

One of the primary attractions of Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies for me as a young man in 1970 was its location in Bellingham; a state-supported liberal arts college far away as possible from my home town of Walla Walla. Coming from a small Catholic school, I liked the idea of a student body limited to 400 students--a self-selected minority of strange spirits searching for something new. The campus was brand new--I arrived before classes started in the fall and worked on the landscaping crew. When that job ended I transferred to working in the cafeteria.

"This building is brought to you by the number 5" is what we had stenciled onto the side of our balcony...back in the day.

American Society & Culture was the name of the year-long interdisciplinary program for all freshman. I also had a class in photography taught by Paul Dorpat, who seemed a wise elder to me then then and is still active as "historian without portfolio" for the Seattle Times. And I signed-on for an introduction-to-philosophy class called Authenticity. The reading list included Plato's Republic, Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Thomas Moore's Utopia, Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Walden II by B.F. Skinner; Ecotopia; Total Loss Farm, and Utopia or Oblivion. Off-campus, I volunteered in distributing The Northwest Passage, an alternative paper published in the nearby village of Old Fairhaven. It was the same year that Good Earth Pottery opened; and it's still there, 48 years later.

There were hippies living in abandoned buildings. There was a food co-op, a Free Store, and there was Toad Hall, a crumbling brick building where you could get homemade soup in a hand-thrown ceramic bowl and a slab of fresh-baked whole wheat bread two inches thick covered in melted cheddar cheese.

We lived in a black and white world with a sense of common cause. Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was LIVE, and it seemed that some kind of Revolution was in progress. One weekend we harbored a draft-dodging fugitive in the dorm, letting him sleep on the floor until another friend with a car could spirit him 50-miles north over the border to Canada. He seemed clueless, not especially bright, and we were relieved to be rid of him. The Establishment was going down and a new world was being born. Resistance was part of the curriculum. One of the faculty--a full-bearded, large-bellied man on a white horse--spent summers in Cuba, helping communists harvest sugar cane. When Country Joe MacDonald performed in the quad, we sang along with the chorus:

Left: Susan Jane Fries, a young woman from Wisconsin raised in a B'hai faith-based family, whose evening dormitory rituals included Swiss Miss hot chocolate and readings from "The Prophet," by Kahil Gibran and "The House at Pooh Corner." Right: Portrait of a young man coming of age in America.

"Coming of Age In America" was the title of the paper I was perpetually procrastinating to write. My reading list included Growing Up Absurd, Munching On Existence, The Future of an Illusion, Life Against Death, Irrational Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Revenge of the Lawn, Another Roadside Attraction, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and every Kurt Vonnegut book I could find. Absorbing all that was happening on campus and off, I completely failed to get any kind of a handle on Coming of Age In America. It's easy to see now what my Problem was: Coming of Age in America is an ever-changing thing. That's what is distinctly American about it: open-ended, metamorphic, defying definition. Coming of age wasn't something that would hold still and submit to being examined.

Top Left: Fairhaven College HQ. Top Right: Fairhaven backdoor trail to Old Fairhaven town. Bottom: The Outback Farm.
Daycare @ Fairhaven

Asian Art & Culture was the theme for my second year of Interdisciplinary Studies. We compared and contrasted three translations of the Tao te Ching. The Bhagvad Gita, I Ching, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck were required reading. I flunked Meditation--an evening class that met after dinner. I always fell asleep. I shared an apartment on campus with a Buddhist from Seattle, a redneck radical from Shelton, and a member of the Brethern Church from Wenatchee. Visiting his family's apple orchard farm for a holiday was an education in itself. The first time ever I had warm milk, poured from a pitcher, straight from the cow.

I also took a class on Ulysses and The Golden Age of Greece, with guest lecturers interdisciplinaryily zooming back and forth between James Joyce's Dublin and the ancient world. My little pointed ex-Catholic head was exploding, but what I really wanted to know was what is Coming of Age in America all about? Maybe I would write a book about it. Out in the real world, I felt, was the only way to deeply learn what coming of age in America could possibly mean. I was free, white, and twenty years old. It was spring, 1972. The radical redneck from Shelton dropped out to go live on a commune in Yucatan. The Buddhist married an older woman and moved off campus. Another friend became a Jesus Freak. We had a strange encounter one evening outside the dorms. In the grip of unspeakable Visions, he was speaking in tongues. Soon after, he joined a religious group doing missionary work among migrant workers.

Signing-off on the paperwork for Incomplete Classes, I hiked down to the Fairhaven port and went boat to boat, asking for work. After several refusals, I finally got a tip about a possible job on a purse-seiner going to Alaska. It was confirmed by the first mate, a burly guy in a head scarf smoking a corncob pipe.

"Come back tomorrow," he said, "and if the skipper shows up you'll have a job."

He snorted derisively and went back to mending nets. That should have been my warning. We were going to Alaska as soon as we made enough money to buy radar is what the captain always said. Buddy was his name, Captain Buddy. After a month, the whole crew quit for lack of pay--because the captain was a total alcoholic. All the other boats would head out before dawn and return laden with fresh-caught salmon while we were still trying to find out which tavern our captain had passed-out in the night before. I learned as much about coming of age in America during that month of unrecompensed labor as I had in the previous two years of academic study. Even if the rewards were not immediate, I felt sure I must be on the right track.

Top: Winding pier descends Fairhaven bluff on 2.5 mile trail to downtown Bellingham. Bottom Left: Amtrack Cassade leaving Fairhaven Station. Right: Alaska ferry unloading at Port of Fairhaven.

Returning to Fairhaven 48 years later is a surreal experience. Tourists and retired Baby Boomers flood the streets during these long, hot, August days. House-sitting for old friends from another story who are taking their annual week-long vacation on Orcas Island--leaving me in charge of the garden and pachysandra and care of Ninia, their muttly mix of Chihuahua and Jack Russell Terrier. In dog-years, Ninia is 77. Must be walked gently and fed 3 kinds of meds twice a day. On my very first day she threw up her breakfast onto the wool carpet in the kitchen: a house-sitter's worst nightmare. Scraped it up and liberally rinsed with cold water that corner of the rug, scrubbing with a dish rag. Hung to dry over the balcony, all better now.


Much of what we Imagined in my college days has come to pass--in ways we never would have dreamed of happening. 66-years old now, married but living separately, with 2 adult children, you'd assume that somewhere along the way I must have come of age in America. Yet when and where this transpired eludes me still. It's a process never-ending.

Top Left: Good Earth Pottery opened in 1970 in the building formerly known as Toad Hall. Top Right: Tony's. Bottom Left: Alaska Ferry tourists hanging out with Dirty Dan Harris, Founder and first mayor of Fairhaven. Bottom right: "Visitor Information Center" is kind of a scam, really just a shop of souvenirs.

Retired now for 4 months and starting to get the hang of it, except for that part about slowing down. After release from long confinement you just want to run. But not so much like Rabbit, Run's Harry Angstrom. Don't recall him riding a bike, much less donning crash helmet and reflective gear. But that's how I roll these days, easy on the knees. It's a 2.5 mile ride on the gravel trail, mostly downhill, from the tourists and retirees of Old Fairhaven to hipster happening downtown Bellingham, debouching at the Farmer's Market on Railroad Avenue. Turn left on Holly for a tour through the heart of old town.

Pickford Film Center
Lime Light Cinema
Top Left: The Alternative Library. Top Right: Gruff Brewery. Bottom: Horseshoe Cafe.

Whether it's Sunday brunch you're searching for or a late-night breakfast and the latest cool restaurants have people like waiting in line to get inside--that's a problem you're never going to have with The Horseshoe. Born in 1904 and located in this building since 1958, it's a time capsule of When America Was Great. The counter area was re-modeled in 2005 with an open-kitchen design, and the acoustic ceiling tiles were cleaned and painted--certainly a great improvement visually. This was the scene of countless late-night and/or a.m. convocations of college undergraduates in search of Authenticity. The cross section of customers is what I remember most, and that hasn't changed. Among the cowboys and kids, young couples and old, there was usually an old man sitting alone in a booth reading the paper. How very strange to realize that man is now me.


All photos & text copyright WhatBobSaw 2018.

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